By Dirk Johnson, New York Times (NY), Email

Welcome back to school, children. Lesson No. 1: The world is a dangerous place, filled with creeps, poisons and predators. Beware!

          The American classroom today echoes with dire warnings about dangers and evils that seemingly lurk everywhere, from marijuana peddlers to child molesters.

          The old notion of sticking to basic education, in the view of some safety advocates, belongs in a dreamily outdated age of innocent, white picket-fence childhoods. What good are the three R's, after all, to a child trapped in the trunk of an abductor's car, a scenario actually discussed in some child safety programs around the nation. (The recommended response: Unhook the taillight wires to alert the police.)

          Among the many worries of parents, illegal drugs rank near the top. In declaring a virtual war on drug abuse, Americans have responded for more than a decade with drug-education programs that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and consume precious classroom time.

          By far the biggest of these efforts, Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or DARE, is used in about 70 percent of the nation's public schools and has generally won overwhelming approval from students, parents, teachers and the police officers who conduct the classes. DARE, which relies on workbook teaching and promotes kinship with the police, is one of about 50 antidrug and safety campaigns in schools.

          There's just one problem: these programs generally don't work.

          Several studies have found that children who attend drug-education classes are just as likely to use illegal drugs as students who do not participate.

          Until now, officials of nonprofit drug prevention programs have dismissed the studies with claims that the findings were colored by the political agendas of academics and researchers. But the latest study, released early this year, was conducted by Dennis Rosenbaum, a professor who had been a DARE supporter, and was financed by the Illinois State Police, a champion of the program.

          Among other discouraging findings, this study found that DARE has even unwittingly encouraged some young people to try drugs, especially students in the suburbs, according to Rosenbaum, a criminal justice professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago. DARE has defended its results and points to endorsements from many school districts.

          School-based anti-drug programs remain popular despite such findings, though an increasing number of skeptical voices have been raised. A number of cities have even quit DARE, including Oakland, Omaha, Spokane, Wash., and Fayetteville, N.C.

          Earl Wysong, an Indiana University professor at the Kokomo campus, whose research has found DARE programs to be ineffective in curbing drug use, said people were starting to become "a little less enthusiastic" about the program.

          Some critics of drug-education efforts say students learn quickly that they are being given a message -- and that a message is different from education. Moreover, if students come to see any part of an anti-drug campaign as propaganda, they tend to distrust the entire message.

          Despite these concerns, Wysong said, critics find it difficult to speak out. "You leave yourself open to charges that you're not on the team in fighting this plague," he said.

          Anti-drug programs often go far beyond warnings about illegal drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, teaching children to be wary of unfamiliar adults and giving them specific game plans for escape.

          During the weeks before Halloween, for example, many parents will be warned about the risks of trick-or-treating, and virtually all of them will be told not to let their children eat anything that isn't factory-wrapped. For many parents, giving a shiny red apple to a child on Halloween nowadays is about as thoughtless as offering a cigarette.

          Some parents and child psychologists have raised concerns that children are being scared needlessly, noting that kidnappers hiding in the bushes are actually exceedingly rare. But such cases are the stuff of made-for-television movies and lurid accounts on local newscasts. The fact is that children are far more likely to be abused by a family member.

          Drug-education programs have also raised some concerns among civil libertarians, who feel uneasy about classrooms being turned over to uniformed police officers. In the case of DARE, a question box sits in the classroom during the program, so children can talk anonymously about anything -- including the drug-taking habits of friends or family members.

          The DARE officer will not listen to specific allegations, but instead encourages the children to report such activity to a school official. And when a child goes to a teacher or counselor with knowledge of such drug-taking -- for example, a parent who smokes marijuana -- the school is bound to go to the legal authorities.

          Loren Siegel, director of public education for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization had no official position on programs like DARE.

          But, she added, "Anything that encourages surveillance -- reporting on your family members or friends -- cannot be good for a democracy."

          Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company